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Genre, Author, Text, Reader: Teaching Nora Roberts’s Spellbound
by Beth Driscoll

Introduction[1]

Teaching popular romance fiction in the university is a sharp reminder of the importance of the syllabus in shaping society-wide notions of literary value. As Pierre Bourdieu explains, educational institutions legitimise specific literary texts by cultivating familiarity with and appreciation of them (Field 121). The omission of popular romance fiction from the literary studies syllabus judges the legitimacy of romance, but it also has far-reaching consequences for the formation of students’ reading practices. Educational institutions promote particular attitudes towards reading and the “pursuit of culture” (Field 233). The cultural capital, or cultural competencies, that universities provide for [End Page 1] students reflects this twofold role: universities confer qualifications that guarantee a student’s familiarity with legitimate culture and also foster long-lasting beliefs about literature over years of training in literary studies (“Forms” 87). The effects of the exclusion of popular romance fiction from the university curriculum are that students actively resist these texts and do not have the required skills to read and understand them.

My own reading experiences illustrate this process. As an undergraduate, I didn’t study romance fiction. I was intellectually excited about modernism and postmodernism, and learned to appreciate older canonical texts. While I was immersed in learning about high literature, my mother and my sister were reading Nora Roberts. After I completed my PhD in literary studies, I finally took them up on their reading recommendations and became obsessed: I read 32 of Roberts’s novels while on maternity leave.

My conversion to Roberts was accelerated through my involvement in teaching an undergraduate literary studies subject at the University of Melbourne. The subject Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction was developed by Ken Gelder. I tutored in the subject in 2006 and 2007, and since 2008 have given a number of its lectures, including one on Roberts. My current position as a lecturer in the Publishing and Communications program at the University of Melbourne informs my approach to teaching popular romance fiction; in addition to my longstanding interest in texts, my current research investigates the production, dissemination and reception of books in contemporary culture.

This article responds to Lisa Fletcher’s call to use writing about teaching practice as a “launch pad for interrogating more deeply the place of popular romance studies in higher education” (“Scholarship”). It begins by briefly outlining Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction’s overarching pedagogical approach: its objectives, syllabus and assessment. The second section summarizes my lecture on Roberts and her novel Spellbound. Finally, I consider students’ responses by reporting on a survey I undertook in 2013 on the experience of studying Spellbound. While a single subject cannot transform a lifetime of educational indoctrination about the kind of literature worth valuing, Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction aims to challenge students’ preconceptions and to open up avenues for them to think critically about popular romance.

The subject: description, objectives and structure

The unit description for Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction is as follows:

This subject takes popular fiction as a specific field of cultural production. Students will analyse various definitive features of that field: popular fiction’s relations to “literature,” genre and identity, gender and sexuality, the role of the author profile, cinematic and TV adaptations, readerships and fan interests, and processing venues. The subject is built around a number of genres: crime fiction, science fiction, horror, romance, the “sex and shopping” novel, the thriller and the blockbuster. On completion of the subject students should be familiar with some important genres of popular fiction, and some representative examples of each genre and have a developed sense of the role of popular fiction in the broader field of cultural production. [End Page 2]

So the subject is organized along two lines of enquiry. It raises large questions about popular fiction and its relationship with what Gelder describes as Literature with a capital L (11), and it also offers more focused analysis of a range of popular fiction genres. Romance fiction was first incorporated into the syllabus in 2007, when Spellbound was added. In 2013 Charlaine Harris’ first Sookie Stackhouse novel was also included to diversify the presentation of romance. The texts are taught in chronological order, and in 2013 the syllabus was:

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)
  • The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • A Murder is Announced (Agatha Christie)
  • Dr No (Ian Fleming),
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
  • The Stud (Jackie Collins)
  • Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
  • Spellbound (Nora Roberts)
  • The Litigators (John Grisham)
  • Dead Until Dark (Charlaine Harris)

The subject is taught to second- and third-year students, and enrolments for the subject are usually around 120. The teaching pattern comprises a 90-minute lecture, followed by small group tutorials in which students discuss the set text and associated readings in the subject reader.

At the end of semester, student must complete a long essay of 2,500 words that compares two texts, worth 60% of their final mark. An earlier essay of 1,500 words is due mid-semester and must address one of the first four texts studied, so students cannot write about romance for this task. A class presentation forms the basis of one of the essays. The topics for the long essays are comparative and broadly framed. Gelder’s task outline includes this advice: “A good essay outlines significant critical positions and engages with them; it also looks closely at passages or scenes from the novels themselves, of course, and you will have to make decisions about what you’ll look at here, and why.” Topics that allow students to write about Spellbound include:

  • comparing Spellbound with The Stud as examples of romance and “anti-romance” fiction;
  • comparing Spellbound with Dead Until Dark as examples of supernatural romance fiction;
  • writing about heroes in two novels;
  • writing about heroines in two novels;
  • writing about popular fiction and genre;
  • writing about popular fiction and literary style; and
  • writing about popular fiction and characterization.

The genre-based approach taken by this subject has, inevitably, both strengths and limitations. Arguably, the subject ghettoises popular fiction and each of its genres, obscuring what romance has in common with other genres and with Literature. Students [End Page 3] sometimes object to drawing a strict demarcation between Literature and popular fiction, or between genres (such as science fiction and fantasy), and it can be useful to remind them that examining the stability of these categorisations while acknowledging their effects is an important critical skill developed through the subject. Other students are very aware of the difference between genre fiction and Literature, and sometimes complain about the lack of literary features in texts such as The Stud: a student once told me the subject should be called “ShitLit.”

Teaching popular romance as one genre amongst many is perhaps an older model of approaching romance (see Goris). Some recent scholarship models other ways of teaching popular romance texts. For example, Lisa Fletcher, Rosemary Gaby and Jennifer Kloester use an “embedded” approach, where a romance novel is taught alongside more literary texts. An Goris argues for a “focused and differential approach,” that draws out the variety within the romance genre. Teaching according to genre, however, can be done in a nuanced way that addresses the dangers of simplification and generalisation. Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction, for example, includes two different romance texts as well as an anti-romance, or “sex-and-shopping,” novel. This variety allows intra-genre distinctions and subtleties to emerge. Even within the week on Roberts, students are taught not only about romance fiction as a genre but also about the specific details of Roberts’s career and of Spellbound as a text, which are in some ways typical and in other ways atypical of the genre.

The genre-based approach also has particular advantages. Focusing on the genre of romance allows discussion from a publishing studies perspective, of romance’s place at the cutting-edge of digital- and self-publishing developments. This introduces a new theoretical framework for students, broadening conventional literary studies by insisting on the relevance of the social and economic contexts of contemporary texts. Looking at how romance as a genre has been dismissed by the academy also allows students to be self-reflexive, drawing upon Bourdieu. Students are invited by this subject to feel estranged from romance, to confront their own ignorance of the phenomenon, to think about what has been excluded from their education, and why, and what limitations this might produce in their ability to engage with contemporary culture. Pedagogically, this subject challenges students to think reflexively about what textual qualities they have been taught to value. When they say a book is “good” or “bad”, what criteria are they using and what assumptions are they making? Students find this line of discussion confronting, but it equips them to be more thorough and careful in their literary criticism, and more aware of the broader context of cultural production that surrounds their experience in academia.

Lecture summary

Before the lecture, students are asked to read the set text, Spellbound, and two scholarly book chapters: “The Institutional Matrix: Publishing Romantic Fiction” from Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature and “One Man, One Woman: Nora Roberts” from Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel. The lecture has three broad aims: to introduce the genre of romance fiction, to describe the career of Roberts, and to model some close reading of Spellbound’s setting and its depiction of gender roles.[2] [End Page 4]

I begin the lecture with some dramatic statistics about Roberts. She has published over 200 novels, including 180 New York Times bestsellers, and releases six new titles a year. There are 400 million copies of her books in print, and over the last 30 years, an average of 27 of her books have been sold every minute. Roberts, I want them to know, is a big deal.

Then I summarise some of the judgements made about romance fiction which position it as anti-literary. Romance is cast as formulaic. It is dismissed as being read passively by women looking for a mindless distraction. Romance is also heavily commercialised. The lecture then works through these positions and complicates them.

The “romance formula” is a familiar idea for students. A number of writers have presented their own versions of this formula, and as Eric Selinger observes, a formula can be an effective pedagogical tool to prompt discussion and enable comparisons across different novels. Formulae range in complexity. A simple version is presented by Canadian romance writer Deborah Hale on her blog: ((H + h) x A) ÷ C + HEA = R. In this formulation, H and h= Hero and heroine, A= Attraction, C= Conflict, HEA= Happy Ever After and R is Romance. Despite the apparent reductiveness of this formula, Hale emphasises that each of these abstractions can be filled by a multitude of different possibilities: “The hero could be anything from a medieval knight to a Navy SEAL to a sexy werewolf. The heroine could be a bluestocking governess, a fashionista or a single mom … romance writers can produce an infinite number of unique combinations.” This formula recognises the central elements of romance and its potential diversity.

Janice Radway’s 13-step formula (Reading 134), by contrast, is extremely specific. Presenting this can be humorous, as students realize how much of a romance plot is “scripted,” but it also tracks some of the complex and dynamic relationships that run through romance novels. Pamela Regis’ 8-step formula, recognized by Eric Selinger as a “Middle Way” between the simplistic and complex, is also valuable to share with students. This part of the lecture confirms that popular romance novels can be formulaic and acknowledges conventionality (particularly the happy ending) as part of the appeal of the genre. At the same time, the lecture invites students to see formulae as available analytical devices that illuminate some of the concerns of the genre.

The lecture next explores the idea that romance fiction is escapism for women. Students in this subject have already encountered Andreas Huyssen’s “Mass Culture as a Woman: Modernism’s Other” (from After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture Postmodernism) which argues that the proto-modernist Flaubert creates, through his character Emma Bovary, a dichotomy between woman as the emotional, passive reader of inferior literature and man as the objective, ironic and active writer of authentic literature. A Flaubertian view of female romance readers is evident in Germaine Greer’s feminist critique in The Female Eunuch, which argues that the fantasies women encounter in romance fiction negatively affect their real life relationships: “Although romance is essentially vicarious the potency of the fantasy distorts actual behaviour” (203). For this reason, Greer attacks the depiction of the romance hero as strong, successful and powerful: “The traits invented for him have been invented by women cherishing the chains of their bondage” (202). In this feminist reading, readers of romance fiction contribute to their own subordination in patriarchal culture.

One way to complicate the second-wave feminist attack on romance is through Janice Radway’s 1984 study of romance readers, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy [End Page 5] and Popular Literature. This work differs from critical perspectives such as Greer’s because it incorporates the views of readers themselves. This is a point where there is a close nexus between my teaching and my research, which also involves paying attention to how readers participate in literary culture (Driscoll). Following Radway’s interviews with readers in the town of “Smithton,” she suggests that romance fiction can operate as a way for women to cope with their real predicaments and the demands made of them: a small-scale “protest.” Romance reading is not so much escapism, as a (temporary) act of refusal (Reading 211). Radway’s study restores agency to romance readers: they emerge as active and strategic participants in culture, not mindless consumers.[3]

The final view of romance to complicate is that it is heavily industrialised. It is undeniable that romance is big business: 35-40 percent of all global mass market paperback sales are romances. In 2011, romance was worth $1.36 billion – double or triple the market for science fiction, fantasy or mystery. I show students the websites of Mills and Boon and Harlequin to explore the way these companies market romance texts: we consider the types of formats for sale, the ways readers are drawn in through book clubs, forums and special offers, and, most of all, through the proliferation of subgenres. Subgenres standardise the production and consumption of romance fiction: readers can subscribe to a subgenre of a publisher and have new titles delivered/downloaded periodically. Readers know what to expect and publishers know how many they can sell.

This sophisticated industrial machinery can create a sense that romance fiction is writerless and that it is consumed rather than read in any meaningful way. For example, Ken Worpole writes that

there is a strong sense that the main problem about the romantic novel is that under heavy commercial pressures, it has become over-determined and over-conventionalized … Certainly the prolific output of some writers in the genre confirms this view that once the setting has been chosen, the characters assembled and named, the novels more or less write themselves (qtd. in Gelder 44).

However, the industrialisation of romance is complicated by the genre’s simultaneous creation of personal connections amongst readers and writers. A high level of (mediated) intimacy characterises the romance community. Many romance writers nurture close relationships with their fans, often through active websites. To illustrate this point, I show students Roberts’s website, noraroberts.com, which also functions as an introduction to her as an author. Under the menu item, “About Nora,” a section titled “Up Close and Personal” offers a humorous, intimate biography. It begins by describing Roberts’s life as a stay-at-home mother: “I macramed two hammocks,” she admits now, “I needed help.” After a blizzard led to “endless games of Candy Land and a severe lack of chocolate,” she began to “look for a little entertainment that was not child-related. She took out a notebook and started to write down one of the stories she’d made up in her head.” This presentation of Roberts’s story vividly personalizes her and forges connections with her likely readers.

These website analyses lead to a discussion of another industry practice: digital publishing. Romances titles dominate ebook bestseller lists, and Roberts has a strong presence in digital sales: she was the third author to sell more than a million books for the Kindle. Romance publishing is moving online: two out of every five romances bought in the [End Page 6] fourth quarter of 2011 were ebooks. E. L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey began life as a piece of online fan fiction before becoming an ebook bestseller, then securing a print publishing deal and becoming a hard copy bestseller. At this point I open the lecture up to a discussion, asking students why they think romance titles seem to be a particularly good fit for digital publishing. Most students realise that ebooks neutralise the social stigma of reading romance fiction—no one can see what you’re reading on your Kindle or iPad. Other suggested reasons for the popularity of digital romance include the ability to instantly purchase and download new titles, to store large numbers of texts, to access more of the backlist, and to try self-publishing.

The second section of the lecture concentrates on Roberts as an author. Roberts began writing category romances for Silhouette, Harlequin’s US imprint, in 1981. Her work is often adapted for TV (the Lifetime channel) but not for film. She publishes six new titles each year: two J.D. Robb crime novels, two trade paperbacks (parts of a trilogy or quartet), one hardcover (released in summer, “the big Nora”) and one mass market title or novella (often also a J. D. Robb story). Throughout the subject students have learnt that popular fiction writers work at a different pace to literary authors. They often write one novel a year, like John Grisham, rather than one every ten years, like Jonathan Franzen. However, Roberts’s pace is dramatically faster than the other popular fiction authors they have studied and her level of output is often challenging for students to comprehend.

I discuss the different formats Roberts writes in, beginning with her recent “Inn at Boonsboro” trilogy. One of the engaging features of this trilogy is that it is set at the real life Bed and Breakfast owned by Roberts, in the town of Boonsboro where she lives, and features other real businesses owned by her family members such as the Turn the Pages bookshop. I ask students what might be going on here: why would an already wealthy author write a fictional book about her real world business? Cross-merchandising seems too simplistic an answer, although that is undeniably part of it: for example, the online store at NoraRoberts.com sells the themed toiletries that appear in the novels and are used in the Inn. I suggest that the novels romanticise her business: the first line of the first book in the trilogy, The Next Always, reads, “The stone walls stood as they had for more than two centuries, simple, sturdy, and strong. Mined from the hills and the valleys…” (1). Becoming a setting for a romance novel has imbued this building with emotion. This halo effect extends to the town of Boonsboro: there’s a romanticising of the small-town mythology of America at work in these novels, a celebration of a particular ideal of American life.

The “Inn at Boonsboro” trilogy uses the genre conventions of romance to blur the lines between reading, tourism and the lived experience of Roberts and her family. Roberts clearly uses genre in some deft and creative ways. Her ability to manipulate genre conventions is showcased through the 40 plus books of the “In Death” series, penned as J. D. Robb. This series participates in multiple genres, the most obvious of which is crime fiction. In each book Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her team solve a homicide case. The covers use dark colours and bold graphics, with the gender-neutral pseudonym prominently featured. Crime is a genre of popular fiction with more prestige than romance, and more male readers, so this genre-based marketing extends Roberts’s audience. Crime genre conventions influence characterisation in these books, particularly Dallas and her police colleagues, and there are crime logics at work in the telling of the stories: lots of hard work, danger, exhaustion and strong, black coffee. The books are also futuristic science fiction, as the series begins in the year 2058. While there is no world-changing “novum” such as [End Page 7] nuclear apocalypse, there are a host of playful details that add interest to the setting: cars that travel vertically, “auto-chefs” that cook for you, droids as servants and pets and off-planet locations for prisons and theme parks. The science fiction setting also assists in the plotting—less research into crime scene investigation methods or forensic science is necessary when Roberts can talk about “sealing up” in a vague but intriguing way. Science fiction tropes sometimes provide plots: Creation in Death is about cloning, while Fantasy in Death involves murder by hologram video game. The science fiction elements also facilitate some social commentary: for example, guns are banned and the police instead use “stunners.”

Underneath these genres, however, the books follow the core conventions of romance. The narrative drive of the series is the developing relationship between Dallas and the sexy, dangerous Irish billionaire Roarke. There are at least three sex scenes between them in most of the novels. Roarke is a classic romance hero: tall and rangy, with long, dark hair, a face with “strong, sharp bones and seductive poet’s mouth” (Reunion 5), “the wisp of Ireland magical in his voice” (Vengeance 10). He is a reformed criminal and wealthy businessman who nurtures Dallas emotionally and practically, by providing meals and medical care and encouraging her to sleep. Dallas and Roarke are married by the third book in the series, but Roberts maintains interest in their relationship by focusing on their shared psychological journey as survivors of childhood abuse. With each novel, they confront and overcome reminders of their past trauma, and their mutually-supported healing forms a spanning narrative across the series.

Not only do the “In Death” books combine several genres, but also Roberts plays the genres against each other, often for comic effect. For example, Dallas’s tough cop persona means that she must show discomfort with Roarke’s romantic gestures, including the beautiful clothes and jewellery he buys her. However, Roberts” combination of genres is not postmodern. It’s unironic: there is no sense of parody or pastiche. We might characterize Roberts’s approach as “more is more” as she builds a blockbuster super-genre. An illustrative scene occurs in Fantasy in Death when Dallas and Roarke test a holographic video game that offers a time travel experience to players, allowing them to experience various historical eras in a realistic way. The game play begins in science fiction mode: “He slid [the disc] into a slot as he spoke, used both palm plate and retinal scan, added a voice command and several manual ones” (Fantasy 106) then the tone shifts as the game begins: “With barely a shimmer this time, she stood on a green hill, her hair long and tied back. She wore, as Roarke did, some sort of leather top that hit mid-thigh and snug pants that slid into the tops of boots” (107). This is “Ireland, Tudor era” (107): “She turned back to him and didn’t he look amazing with all that black hair blowing in the wind, in that scarred leather and with a bright sword in his hand. ‘I won’t be calling time-out.’ She lifted her sword. ‘Let’s play’” (Fantasy 108). The narrative device of the hyper-realistic video game allows Roberts to insert a scene like the ones she writes in Spellbound, of ancient combat in a mystical landscape, into a futuristic crime thriller. She provides the pleasures of multiple genres in one reading experience.

The final part of the lecture reads the set text, the novella Spellbound, which students are now equipped to approach using a range of critical frameworks. Spellbound has a varied publishing history. It was first published in 1998 as a short story in Jove’s collection Once Upon a Castle, and then released as a standalone mass-market title in 2005 with a price point of US$2.99. The endmatter of this edition describes the 81-page novella [End Page 8] as one of a series of “hotshots,” “six quick reads from your favourite bestselling authors.” Spellbound is also available in two other formats: as a 2-in-1 with Roberts’s Ever After and as an ebook for US$2.99. Spellbound participates in the subgenre of paranormal romance, incorporating supernatural elements such as witches, wizards and magic spells.

The Irish setting of the novella offers a productive analytical pathway. Spellbound has a heavy investment in Ireland’s romantic landscape. Roberts has Irish heritage, and frequently creates Irish settings and characters in her writing. In Spellbound, she constructs Ireland as a place of mystery, myth, possibility and enchantment. Calin Farrell, the hero, begins the novel in New York and flies to Ireland to address a deeply felt but inarticulate yearning. In Ireland, Calin meets Bryna, a young witch who lives alone in a cottage at the foot of a ruined castle. Bryna has been waiting for Calin: she knows that they are reincarnations of lovers from 1000 years ago, a warrior and a witch, who were separated by the wizard Alisdair when he accused Bryna of being unfaithful and killed Calin in battle. Bryna’s mission in the novella is to convince Calin of the truth of this story in time for him to battle Alisdair again, one day after he arrives in Ireland: only true love between Bryna and Calin will enable Calin to win. Calin is immediately attracted to Bryna, but his twofold task in the novel is to accept the supernatural story and to commit himself fully to her.

Like Calin, readers of Spellbound travel to a world removed from the everyday, a mystical world of fields, mists, stags, forests and castles. At points, the novella reads like a tourist advertisement for this mythologised Ireland. Halfway through the novel, Bryna soliloquises on Ireland as a “dreaming place”:

“We’re proud of our dreamers here. I would show you Ireland, Calin. The bank where the columbine grows, the pub where a story is always waiting to be told, the narrow lane flanked close with hedges that bloom with red fuschia. The simple Ireland.”

Tossing her hair back, she turned to him. “And more. I would show you more. The circle of stones where power sleeps, the quiet hillock where the faeries dance of an evening, the high cliff where a wizard once ruled. I would give it to you, if you’d take it” (47).

This, clearly, is not the Ireland of poverty, alcoholism and sectarian violence. Rather, it is the Ireland of postcards, an Ireland likely to appeal to those who have yet to visit the country.[4] In Spellbound, the escapist imperative of romance fiction is built not just into the romance plot, but into its setting, which is an imaginative space of alternative possibilities. It is also an emotionally charged landscape. Roberts’s descriptions of place contribute to the affective impact of her story, as natural features stand in for the passions of her characters. Consider Calin’s first view of the castle above Bryna’s home:

The ruined castle came into view as he rounded the curve. … Perched on a stony crag, it shouted with power and defiance despite its tumbled rocks.

Out of the boiling sky, one lance of lightning speared, exploded with light, and stung the air with the smell of ozone.

His blood beat thick, and an ache, purely sexual, began to spread through his belly (11). [End Page 9]

In this tightly written novella, no words are wasted. All the prose is geared towards providing emotional satisfaction for the reader.

A second way to approach Spellbound is through its depiction of gender. One of the key differences between this novel and the majority of romance fiction is that it is written largely from the perspective of the hero. Like the Irish setting, a focus on male characters is a characteristic of many of Roberts’s novels. As the “bio” on her website notes:

Through the years, Nora has always been surrounded by men. Not only was she the youngest in her family, but she was also the only girl. She has raised two sons. Having spent her life surrounded by men, Ms. Roberts has a fairly good view of the workings of the male mind, which is a constant delight to her readers. It was, she’s been quoted as saying, a choice between figuring men out or running away screaming.

The female focus of much romance fiction reflects the genre’s historical association with the rise of companionate marriage in the late eighteenth century (Regis 57). The heroine is typically the protagonist because her choices determine the marriage that takes place at the novel’s end. Spellbound reflects some of the changes in gender relations between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. In this story, Bryna pursues Calin. She knows that she is destined to be with him – “they were meant to be lovers. This much she believed he would accept” (16). It is Calin who must make the choice to accept her offer of love. He is effectively seduced by Bryna in the novel, and this places him in a feminised position. We see this most clearly in the passage where Cal begins to worry that Bryna might be an obsessed fan who has drugged him:

Cal awoke to silence. His mind circled for a moment, like a bird looking for a place to perch. Something in the tea, he thought. God, the woman had drugged him. He felt a quick panic as the theme from Stephen King’s Misery played in his head (18).

Bryna has taken control here, and Calin feels threatened and disoriented. If a heroine were placed in a similar position to Calin, this scene would invoke the heroine’s fear of rape. Calin may be the protagonist but Bryna has power, and in Roberts’s writing, this reversal of typical romance gender roles becomes enjoyably comic. When Calin asks Bryna why she stripped him and put him to bed, Bryna retorts, “Oh Cal, you have a most attractive body. I’ll not deny I looked. But in truth, I’m after preferring a man awake and participating when it comes to the matters you’re thinking of” (23).

Despite these shifts in the roles of heroine and hero, most aspects of the novel fulfill the genre expectations of conventional romance fiction. Calin is handsome, wealthy and famous: “He was thirty, a successful photographer who could name his own price, call his own shots” (7). Bryna, despite her sexual forwardness, has some conservatively feminine qualities. Much attention is placed on her domestic skills and the clean, welcoming cottage she has created. She even spins her own wool. Calin’s reaction to this validates traditional female labour, even as it carefully avoids offending more modern female readers. Roberts writes, from Calin’s perspective: “Most of the women he knew couldn’t even sew on a [End Page 10] button. He’d never held the lack of domesticity against anyone, but he found the surplus of it intriguing in Bryna” (33). So Spellbound plays with some gender conventions of the genre by allowing the heroine to be sexually proactive, but other conventions are left intact.

Student responses

To explore the effects of this lecture on students, I prepared an online survey through the free service SurveyMonkey which I announced in the lecture and in a follow-up email. This survey comprised nine multiple choice and open-ended questions and took about five minutes to complete. Twenty students responded from a total enrolment of 120 students, a response rate of 17 percent. This low level of participation in the survey means that the results should not be read as reflecting the experience or viewpoints of all students in the subject. The respondents were self-selecting, which may have introduced a bias towards those who were already interested in Roberts or romance. Eighty-five percent of respondents were female, a slightly higher figure than the percentage of female students enrolled in the subject (71 percent).

The first set of questions in the survey explored students’ pre-existing familiarity with popular romance. Question 1 of the survey asked “Had you heard of Nora Roberts before you took this subject?” The purpose of this question was to assess students’ awareness of this bestselling author. Fifty percent of students answered yes, and fifty percent no. This indicates that many students lack knowledge not only of romance fiction but of commercial fiction: Roberts is an author prominently displayed in bookshops and frequently mentioned on bestseller lists, for example, but has not been consciously noticed by many university students.

Question 2 asked “Had you read any novels by Nora Roberts before taking this subject?” If the answer was yes, students were prompted to identify which ones. Only three respondents (15 percent) had read any novels by Roberts before taking the subject. One was evidently a genuine fan, having read “Northern Lights, Jewels of the Sun, Tears of the Moon, Heart of the Sea, Valley of Silence, Dance of the Gods, Morrigans Cross, a few from the “In Death” series. Probably more but I cannot recall the titles.” Another had read Northern Lights, and another had read “One of her JD Robb novels.” A fourth student noted that they “hadn”t read any but my mum is an avid reader of her novels.”

Question 3 broadened the inquiry by asking “Had you read any romance novels before taking this subject?” Eight students (40 percent of respondents) had previously read a romance novel. The question followed up with, “If yes which ones?” The titles nominated by students included “Nicholas Evans and Rachael Treasure novels,” “Louise Bagshawe – The devil you know” and “I’m a big fan of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series, Rachel Gibson’s novels, and Fiona Walker’s ‘Well Groomed’.” The specificity of these answers suggests that these students may belong to fan communities of romance, with a high level of knowledge of the genre. One student wrote “Jane Austen novels,” which showed insight into the history of romance fiction. Another reported reading “anything available on the op shop[5] shelves—historical romance, Collins … I never paid attention until I read A Woman of Substance!” This response begins with a generalised conception of romance fiction and [End Page 11] one of its primary purchase locations (the op shop), before moving on to a specific author (Collins) and a particular novel to sketch a growing interest in romance fiction.

Having established students’ connections with romance fiction, I went on to ask about their experiences with the set text, looking at both enjoyment and intellectual engagement. Question 4 asked “Did you enjoy reading Spellbound?” and Question 5 asked “Did you find Spellbound interesting, from an academic perspective?” Only 20 percent of respondents said they enjoyed reading Spellbound. By contrast, 70 percent of respondents said that they did find Spellbound interesting from an academic perspective. These suggestive findings indicate that many surveyed students do not associate reading this romance text with pleasure, but that adopting a critical posture increases their comfort with the genre. The nuances and implications of these results are teased out in the responses to the later survey questions.

Question 6 asked “What did you like most about Spellbound?” The students who responded to this question fell into some discernible groups. A number of responses were ironic: one student enjoyed “When it finished,” one thought “it was so bad it was good.” Another wrote, “I did not particularly enjoy any of it, to be honest. The fact that she named her lead male ‘Calin Farrell’ was ridiculously hilarious, however.”[6] These students display something of a camp sensibility in their reading of the text. In the Genre Fiction/Popular Fiction subject, students discuss camp when they study Collins’s The Stud, so this is a mode they are familiar with by the time they encounter Spellbound.

Another group of students enjoyed the novel on its own terms. One wrote that:

It was easy and fun to read. I liked the fact that the female was in the dominant role. I actually think the writing was decent, too. It certainly wasn’t a dumb book as some would lead you to believe.

Another enjoyed the setting, “the gradual shifting perspective from the reality of life in New York to the fantastic supernatural of Ireland” and others the characters: “It was so easy to read, the characters were well defined despite the very short length of the novel.” These students take pleasure in the constitutive elements of the text: characters, setting, plot, themes and writing style.

A final group of students wrote that they enjoyed looking analytically at the text. One appreciated “Seeing a genre usually dismissed taken seriously” while another responded, “I didn’t so much enjoy the book as a book, but rather as a representation of the vast industry of romance fiction.” Three students commented specifically on the feminist aspects of the book. One wrote, “The overwhelming gender performativity astounded me, because it was written in the 90s, a decade when women were gaining independence, yet it was interesting how Bryna was so domesticated.” Another enjoyed “studying feminist critiques of it” and a third was interested in “social commentary on romance as perpetuating women’s subjugation, and why the genre remains appealing.” These students, then, did not appreciate the book as a leisure reading experience, but could value it as a text to be studied analytically (“taken seriously”) through a conceptual framework such as feminism or through its participation in industrial practices and genre conventions.

The aspects of Spellbound disliked by students also reveal much about the ways in which students approach romance. Question 7 asked, “What did you like least about Spellbound?” A cluster of responses to this question focused on stereotypes and gender [End Page 12] issues. Two students wrote “stereotypes” and “gender stereotypes,” and another disliked “the part where despite Bryna’s power, it’s Calin who can solve the problem and he did it alone while protecting her.” One response offered a more lengthy feminist critique:

I found the entire plot contrived. I believe she simply utilised the supernatural genre in order to justify the “preordained love” scenario, and to give her female lead some agency, and even that was limited as she relied upon her male hero’s confession of love in order for her powers to flourish.

A second group of responses objected to Roberts’s writing style: these students disliked “the writing style,” “poor expression and writing,” and dismissed the novella as “so poorly written.” One student linked this with the commercialization of romance fiction, criticizing the book’s “lazy writing suggesting Roberts put little or no effort into the book instead relying upon her reputation/name to sell books.”

These prose-related objections are consonant with other respondents who dislike Spellbound because of its genre conventions. One student wrote, “some parts were very cliched (which I guess is part of the romance genre). Some parts were a bit cringe-worthy, too,” while another thought the book’s “strict adherence to romance formula, just made it pretty boring with nothing much to it.” Another student wrote that “the pace in which the events of the book unfolded seemed very unrealistic to me. Also, I had never read a romance novel before but I didn’t particularly enjoy the format.” These students critique the novel using the criteria they have been taught to apply to literary texts: complexity, realism and originality. Measured against these criteria, Spellbound is a failure and students are unable to appreciate it.

In a slightly different vein, two students disliked the novel on the grounds that it was not a strong example of romance fiction. One wrote that “Considering the context, it only served to concrete the stereotypes about romance fiction that people would have had in their minds – shallow and uninteresting, whereas many romance novels have much more depth.” Another compared it unfavourably with other romance fiction and other Roberts novels:

It was extremely predictable and not at all complex like many other romance novels I’ve read. It seemed almost childish with its simplicity and I wasn’t as enraptured with the plot or characters as other Nora Roberts books or other romance novels.

Like the students who disliked romance fiction’s conventional features, these students criticize Spellbound as lacking depth and complexity. So for these respondents, romance as a genre is defensible because it can show traits that are literary – even though Spellbound doesn’t.

The survey also aimed to ascertain which critical approaches to romance were most engaging for students. Question 8 asked, “What did you find most interesting about the lecture on Spellbound?” Selected responses show a number of routes into romance that caught students’ attention. Several enjoyed learning more about the author: such as the one who was interested in “Nora Roberts” entrepreneurial relationship with her readers and her latest series set in her home town: “weird; ballsy” and the one who appreciated “The [End Page 13] parts about Nora Roberts herself (eg the website and biographical info). It was interesting to consider Roberts as the product.” Other students were interested in approaching the text from a feminist angle. One liked “the discussion about the formula of romance novels and the genre’s relationship with feminism,” and another thought that “the feminist critiques of romance novels was very interesting and fuelled lots of discussion in our tutorials.”

The largest group of students was interested in romance as a genre. One was engaged by “the critical theory behind the success of romance novels and the digitalisation of romance novels” and another by “the economy of romance fiction.” One stated that “the general background information of the romance genre was useful. I liked that it was treated as a legitimate book to study. Looking at different romance formulas was also useful.” Another student took a broader perspective on the genre: “I thought the lecture was great, it illuminated all of the problematic aspects of romance fiction and also talked about its more positive/redemptive features.”

Examined as a whole, the insights into students’ thoughts provided by this survey indicate that most respondents did not enjoy reading Spellbound: they resist Spellbound’s conventionality and depiction of gender roles, and find it lacking in qualities such as complexity, realism and depth that they appreciate in literary texts. However, these students do have a strong academic interest in romance fiction: its conventions, logics, practices and authors.

Conclusion

What is the place of popular romance fiction in the higher education system? This article’s account of teaching Roberts raises complicated questions about the interaction between reading for entertainment and reading for university, and the ways in which the academic context affects readers’ appreciation of different kinds of writing. Historically, texts read for enjoyment and texts studied at university have been sharply distinguished. Describing her experiences as an undergraduate, Janice Radway identifies a difference between the books she read for pleasure—“bestsellers, mysteries, cookbooks and popular nature books”—and the high literature she studied in class (A Feeling 3). Following the cultural studies turn of the twentieth-century, the study of popular culture, including genre fiction, has a more prominent place in higher education. Yet, what happens to the pleasure of reading when these texts are co-opted by academia? Radway came to enjoy reading high literary texts at university, but for her this “was always combined with an intellectual distance … my new tastes somehow failed to duplicate precisely the passion of my response to those other, suspect, supposedly transparent, popular books” (A Feeling 3). Texts that are studied as part of the university syllabus are inevitably intellectualized, and are never experienced purely as leisure. Teaching popular romance fiction at university re-situates the genre, valorizing academic readings of romance texts and obscuring what happens when such fiction is read for pleasure.

The relationship between leisure reading and academic reading is further complicated when students do not enjoy particular works of popular fiction. The survey conducted for this article showed a poor awareness of romance fiction prior to the subject and a determined refusal of its pleasures by many respondents. In this context, the [End Page 14] academic study of popular romance challenges and reframes students’ antipathy. Studying romance fiction offers students an opportunity to explicitly consider varied reading communities and hierarchies of literary value. A pedagogical presentation of romance fiction can extend students’ experience of literary culture and encourage them to reflect on their own reading and critical practices. It can open students up to the possibility of considering other literary texts as cultural products, too: further surveys of students’ experiences with other genres and texts may be illuminating in this regard. My experience of teaching Roberts has reinforced the importance of acknowledging the varying reactions students have to popular romance and of providing intellectual tools that approach romance from a number of angles, such as discussions of feminism, genre conventions and the contemporary publishing industry. These academic frameworks, while unable to fully account for the pleasures of romance, enable student readers to appreciate some of the specific social, cultural and literary qualities of the romance genre, its authors and its texts.


[1] I gratefully acknowledge the input of Ken Gelder and Claire Knowles, whose ideas and suggestions contributed to the development of this article.

[2] Both Claire Knowles and I, at various times, lectured for the subject and this section of the article reflects the collaborative nature of our lectures.

[3] Some students may be interested in engaging with critiques of Radway’s characterization of romance readers and her view that reading romance may be a substitute for social or political action (see, for example, Moore and Selinger 2012).

[4] I am indebted to Claire Knowles for this idea and phrasing.

[5] An “op shop” or opportunity shop is a store run by a charity selling secondhand goods cheaply, including secondhand books.

[6] Presumably because of the similarity with the name of the actor Colin Farrell. [End Page 15]

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature.Trans. Randal Johnson. Cambridge: Polity, 1993. Print.

———. “The Forms of Capital.” The Sociology of Education. Ed. A. R. Sadovnic. New York: Routledge, 2007. 83-96. Print.

Driscoll, Beth. “Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Conversions of Capital.” By the Book?: Contemporary Publishing in Australia. Ed. Emmett Stinson. Clayton: Monash UP, 2013. 103-119. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa, Rosemary Gaby, and Jennifer Kloester. “Pedagogy Report: Embedding Popular Romance Studies in English Units: Teaching Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.2 (2011): n. pag. Web.

Fletcher, Lisa. “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Popular Romance Studies: What is it, and Why Does it Matter?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013): n. pag. Web.

Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. Milton Park: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Goris, An. “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012): n. pag. Web.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. London: MacGibbon, 1970.

Hale, Deborah. “The Secret Formula of Romance.” Deborah Hale. 2005. Web. 21 Feb 2013.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. Print.

James, E. L. Fifty Shades of Grey. London: Arrow, 2011. Print.

Moore, Kate and Eric Selinger. “The Heroine as Reader, the Reader as Heroine: Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.2 (2012): n. pag. Web.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1984. Print.

———. A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of-The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003. Print.

Robb, J. D. Vengeance in Death. New York: Berkeley, 1997. Print.

———. Reunion in Death. New York: Berkley, 2002. Print.

———. Creation in Death. New York: Berkley, 2008. Print.

———. Fantasy in Death. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010. Print.

Roberts, Nora. Spellbound. New York: Jove, 2005. Print.

———. The Next Always (The Inn at Boonsboro Trilogy). New York: Berkley, 2011.

———. Spellbound & Ever After. London: Piatkus, 2012. Print.

Roberts, Nora, Jill Gregory, Ruth Ryan Langan, and Marianne Willman. Once Upon a Castle. New York: Jove, 1998. Print.

Selinger, Eric. “Rebooting the Romance: The Impact of A Natural History of the Romance Novel.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.2 (2013): n. pag. Web. [End Page 16]

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“Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies” by An Goris

Introduction

These are exciting times for popular romance scholars.[1] Over the last few years a number of interconnected developments—including the founding of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) in 2009 and of the peer-reviewed Journal of Popular Romance Studies in 2010, the increase of international conferences about popular romance (Brisbane (2009), Brussels (2010), New York (2011), McDaniel (2011), York (2012), Freemantle (2013)) and the funding of substantial academic grants by Romance Writers of America (RWA) and The Nora Roberts Foundation—have stimulated the increasing institutional establishment and recognition of the field of Popular Romance Studies. As the overall study of the representation of romantic love in popular culture gains academic ground, the scholarly examination of one of the genres at the epicenter of this emerging field—popular romance fiction—is in transition as well. The inclusive, genre-wide and generalizing approach that characterizes many older studies of popular romance fiction, including such foundational works as Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) and even some parts of Pamela Regis’ seminal A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), is slowly being replaced by a more focused and differential approach.

Such a differential approach to the study of popular romance fiction seeks to address not the whole of the genre (as older studies are wont to) but specific subparts of it. These studies are then based on more specified corpora of primary texts. Examples of such studies are recent work on romance subgenres (see e.g. Neal (2006), Fletcher (2008) and Betz (2009)), particular authors (see e.g. Frantz (2009)) and even individual novels (see e.g. Selinger (2012)). The findings and conclusions formulated in these studies are usually less general and wide-ranging than those often formulated in older romance studies. Slowly, the decades-old scholarly tradition of making very general claims about the popular romance genre as a whole is then being replaced by a more specified perspective in which the scholar seeks to address not the similarities of the whole, but the specifics of the parts of the whole. In this setup, the general claims of older studies often serve as a (normative) framework against which individual cases—of particular romance authors or novels, for example—are being tested. As will be illustrated in this paper, such a more differential approach to the study of popular romance leads to analyses that recognize (instead of obscure) the variety that exists within the genre and that are often more refined, nuanced, and sophisticated than before.[2]

The general claims about popular romance fiction that are taken to task in this paper have to do with the representation of romantic love—and, more particularly, of the mind and the body in love—in popular romance novels. Specifically, the paper investigates Catherine Belsey’s claim that popular romance novels offer a particular construction of the mind and the body in love that purports to resolve the (postmodern) tension between the body and the mind—the material and the immaterial—but eventually fails to do so. This recurrent construction, Belsey suggests, explains the massive appeal of the popular romance novel as well as the curious disappointment readers supposedly feel at the end of the happily ending romance tale (21-41). In this paper, Belsey’s general(izing) claims about popular romance novels are used as a framework to study the work of Nora Roberts, the single most popular romance author of our time. In particular, the paper analyzes the representation of the body and the mind in Roberts’ construction of romantic love on the basis of eight of the author’s novels. By investigating if Belsey’s claims about the irresolvable tension between body and mind hold true for Roberts’ hugely popular work, this paper develops a nuanced understanding of one of the core motifs in Roberts’ vast oeuvre that might shed some light on its immense popularity.

The General Claim: Mind, Body and Love in Popular Romance Novels

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the popular romance novel appear in the second chapter of Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (1994), the scholar’s theoretically sophisticated and wide-ranging study of the representation of desire in Western texts. In line with this work’s overall theoretical interests, Belsey turns to critical theory to try to explain the popular romance novel’s massive appeal. Her analysis focuses mainly on the representation of romantic love as a phenomenon that impacts both the body and the mind in popular romance novels. This dual conceptualization of love, Belsey notes, is in line with long-standing Western traditions of dual conceptualisations of identity and the self that originated with René Descartes and his colleagues of the Enlightenment. These thinkers put forth conceptualisations of the human subject as internally disjointed and divided along the line of the body and the mind that have held sway in Western culture ever since. Although Belsey notes that such dual conceptualisations have come to seem “natural and inevitable” (23), the notion that the self is internally disjointed remains a deeply unsettling idea in many ways. Popular romance novels, Belsey finds, capitalise upon this anxiety and this is the secret to their extraordinary appeal. In these novels, romantic love offers “a promise to bring mind and body back into perfect unity, to heal the rift of experience which divides individuals from themselves” (23). Such a promise, Belsey posits, strongly appeals to the contemporary reader.

However, Belsey is quick to note, fulfilling this central promise is easier said than done and herein lies the romance genre’s problem. Romances attempt to bridge the gap between mind and body by consistently connecting intense sexual sensations to moral and emotional feelings of commitment and love (23). This goal, Belsey elaborates, induces the genre’s rather specific representation of sexuality as “elemental, beyond control, majestic, thrilling, dangerous” (27)—a construction that is in part achieved by the stereotypical representation of sexual passion in metaphors of powerful natural phenomena such as a hurricane, a flood, a storm, an earthquake or a wave. While such extremely intense sexual sensations ensure the involvement of the body in the experience of romantic love, physical passion alone is not enough. Indeed, Belsey observes, for this passion to constitute true love, not only the body but also the mind has to be engaged: the rational, knowing subject is, in love, “required to speak, to assert his identity as a subject” (29).

It is here, Belsey claims, that the crux of the problem lies. Words spoken in the heat of passion are not to be trusted since this passion has explicitly been presented as “bewildering, transporting of consciousness, sweeping away all sense of the self, [which] precisely deflects subjectivity and consequently defers the moment of moral commitment” (29). Only the words that are spoken afterwards, “independently [from the bodily experience], once the knowing, willing subject is restored,” are the words that really matter (30, emphasis mine). But herein lies also the failure of the romance novel to live up to its promise of unifying mind and body. Inasmuch as the romance project hinges on words spoken in this separate, post-passionate context, it does not bring body and mind together, but rather enforces the distinctions between them. “To the extent that the aim was to dissolve the opposition between mind and body in a story of true love,” Belsey concludes, “the project signally fails in these instances” (30). This failure, Belsey finally suggests, explains why “the fantasy [romances] offer is a little disappointing” (31): romance novels consistently fail to live up to the promise that constitutes (at least in Belsey’s eyes) their biggest appeal.

The sense of disappointment Belsey speaks of is not, as such, identified or described by romance readers. To the contrary: in Janice Radway’s classic study, to which Belsey repeatedly refers, readers consistently identify positive emotions at the end of the romance reading experience and claim romance reading makes them feel good (60-66). Belsey does not consider these claims to be incompatible with her own conclusions, however. Instead she suggests that the frequent repetition of the romance reading act Radway observed likely confirms her hypothesis:

It emerged that the Smithton women were reading a great many romances. [ . . . ] Is it conceivable that this avid reading is an indication that the optimism created by romance is more precarious than it is possible to say? Perhaps the next romance is there to compensate for the disappointments engendered by the last? All we can be sure of is that readers of romance tend to crave more romance. A number of the Smithton women acknowledged an anxiety about whether they might be depressed by their reading [ . . . w]hat if the anxiety is precisely an effect of their extensive reading experience, a silent recognition of unconscious disappointment that the stories have consistently failed to resolve the divisions they depend on? (34-35)

Although Belsey formulates her ideas as questions, she quite strongly suggests that the repetition of the romance reading act is not, as readers tend to claim, primarily motivated by positive emotions, but rather by a sense of disappointment that readers might not be consciously aware of: a disappointment which is, in Belsey’s eyes, very likely a consequence of romance reading itself.

Belsey and the Evolution of Romance Scholarship

Although Belsey’s claims have found very little response in subsequent romance criticism, she puts forth a set of interesting, challenging and even provocative ideas. The notion that the popular romance novel’s massive appeal—a (seeming) conundrum that has confounded many a critic—has something to do with the texts’ complex relation to anxieties about self and identity that are typically associated with the (post)modern condition is a new, intriguing and valuable suggestion that certainly deserves further scrutiny. While Belsey’s discussion of the romance reader’s lack of awareness of her own negative response comes off as somewhat belittling, the suggestion that romance reading triggers a more complex reaction than straightforward happiness—and that this reaction might have something to do with the desire to read more romance—is fascinating nonetheless. Belsey’s study thus offers a number of suggestions that deserve further exploration.

Such further exploration is undertaken in this paper, but in line with the ongoing development in the field of Popular Romance Studies there is an important methodological difference between this study and Belsey’s. Notwithstanding the impressive theoretical suggestions the latter makes, Belsey commits an important methodological faux pas in her study by failing to adequately discuss the size, composition and selection of the primary corpus on which her findings are based. Moreover, since in the course of her discussion Belsey refers to no more than six romance texts, the (apparent) size of her corpus seems decidedly too small to warrant the genre-wide scope of her claims. The present study deliberately makes different methodological choices by first, focussing on the oeuvre of a single author and second, selecting novels from that oeuvre according to explicit, clear-cut principles.

Nora Roberts

This paper focuses on American writer Nora Roberts, who is widely considered the most popular and successful romance author of our time. Since her first category romance novel was published in 1981, Roberts has written more than 200 romance novels. A staggering 178 of these have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, on which the author’s novels have so far spent a total of 932 weeks (or 17 years). As the first (and only triple) inductee in RWA’s Hall of Fame and the recipient of a record-breaking twenty-one RITA Awards, Roberts is one of the most distinguished romance authors in RWA’s and the romance genre’s history. With more than 400 million copies of her books currently in print Roberts is, moreover, not only the top-selling romance writer, but also one of the bestselling authors in the world.

Remarkably, Roberts is also one of the most understudied authors in the world. Whereas the oeuvres of Roberts’ fellow bestselling authors such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and John Grisham are studied regularly, Roberts’ romance oeuvre has hardly drawn the academic gaze.[3] Barely a handful of studies on her work have been published; a monograph that takes on Roberts’ complete oeuvre does not currently exist.[4] In this regard Roberts does not differ from other contemporary romance authors—the author study remains an important lacuna in scholarship on this genre—but her status as one of the bestselling authors in the world makes the lack of studies on her work especially remarkable.

Perhaps one of the reasons scholars have been reluctant to take on Roberts’ oeuvre is its sheer size. Already counting more than 200 novels and increasing by an average of five new novels every year, Roberts’ body of work is simply colossal. It is also decidedly too large to subject to the close reading analysis on which this present study is based, so for the purposes of this study a selection had to be made. This selection takes into account a number of the most significant variables present in Roberts’ oeuvre—including year of publication, subgenre, part of series or standalone and original publication format—and eventually resulted in eight novels.

  Publication Subgenre Series / stand alone Original format
Irish Thoroughbred 1981 Contemporary Irish Hearts series Category
One Man’s Art 1985 Contemporary MacGregor series Category
Suzanna’s Surrender 1991 Contemporary/

Suspense

Calhoun series Category
Montana Sky 1996 Western/

Suspense

Stand alone Single title

(hardcover)

Morrigan’s Cross 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (1) Single title

(paperback)

Dance of the Gods 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (2) Single title

(paperback)

Valley of Silence 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (3) Single title

(paperback)

High Noon 2007 Suspense Stand alone Single title

(hardcover)

Although this collection of eight novels does not represent the full range of Roberts’ oeuvre—Roberts’ alter ego J.D. Robb is missing and the decade between 1996 and 2006 is underrepresented, to name its two most important shortcomings—the corpus is nonetheless fairly well-balanced and compatible with the practical constraints of a study like this one.

The Integration of Body and Mind in Nora Roberts’ Romance Fiction

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the pivotal importance of the representation of the body and the mind to the immense appeal of the popular romance genre open up interesting avenues of inquiry for the study of Nora Roberts’ work. As Belsey’s observations imply, the complex relation between body and mind plays a central role in Roberts’ representation of romantic love, which is indeed conceptualized as a dual force that impacts the body as well as the mind. While to a large extent Roberts’ romance novels follow the patterns of the genre insightfully uncovered in Belsey’s study, in one crucial regard Roberts’ novels deviate from this pattern. Whereas Belsey claims that popular romance novels consistently fail to realize the bridging of the gap between body and mind their conventional representation of romantic love promises, the analyses in this paper reveal that in Roberts’ romance fiction the unification of body and mind is always represented as successful. The potential implications of this observation for our understanding of Roberts’ popularity are addressed in the conclusion to this paper after the pattern that achieves this unification is described in more detail.

Divided Selves During the First Meeting

In Roberts’ romances, the process that ends with the complete and successful integration of the lover-subject’s body and mind starts with their explicit separation. Indeed, at the beginning of Roberts’ stories the division between the lover’s body and mind is repeatedly stressed in the narration. All first meeting scenes analyzed in this study emphasize the protagonists’ double, diverging response to each other: strong and immediate physical attraction is combined with a form of conscious dislike, irritation, or anger. Although this representation differs slightly from the pattern observed by Belsey—who finds that the division between mind and body is mainly situated in the heroine’s emphatic bewilderment over, lack of understanding of, or even full-out distrust of her body’s uncontrollable, explicitly sexual response to the hero (24-26)—the first meeting scenes in Roberts’ romances nonetheless systematically introduce, and emphatically stage, the basic dichotomy between body and mind around which the rest of the romance narrative essentially revolves.

The first meeting scene between hero Grant Campbell and heroine Gennie Grandeau in Roberts’ 1985 category romance One Man’s Art is an example of this construction. Hero Grant is severely “annoyed” (264) when heroine Gennie shows up at his doorstep during a stormy night, disrupting his much-valued solitude and privacy. Roberts quickly adopts the hero’s point of view to emphasize that barely seconds after letting the heroine in he already “wished fervently he’d never opened the door” (263). Gennie, put out by Grant’s “unfriendly, scowling face” and rude and unwelcoming behavior, adopts an “icy tone” and remains “distantly polite, [ . . . ] frigid and haughty” (264), but privately “seriously consider[s] heaving her purse at him” (265). The narration of this immediate dislike and annoyance is instantly complemented with the narration of their physical attraction. Grant is “thrown” by Gennie’s “sea green, huge and faintly slanted” eyes (264) and “when the sight of her [ . . . goes] straight to his gut” he realizes she is “too beautiful for his peace of mind” (267). The unambiguous statement that Grant is “furiously annoyed by the flare of unwelcome desire” (268) makes the opposition between his mental and physical response textually explicit. Gennie is portrayed as equally attracted, experiencing a physical “stir” and “a thrill [of . . . ] anticipation” (269). Again, the body’s response is explicitly opposed to the mind: she is depicted as “catching herself” and internally lecturing that “even her imagination ha[s] no business sneaking off in that direction” (269). The division between body and mind, staged continuously throughout this first meeting scene, is once more explicitly narrated in the scene’s closing paragraphs:

He wondered what she would do if he simply got up, hauled her to her feet and dragged her up into his bed. He wondered what in the hell was getting into him. They stared at each other, each battered by feelings neither of them wanted while the rain and the wind beat against the walls, separating them from everything civilized. (270)

The parallel syntactic construction of the first two sentences (“He wondered . . . He wondered”) discursively reinforces the notion—made explicit in the narration—that within one person, one self, two opposing reactions are simultaneously ongoing; the physical, sexual response is represented as a force separate from the conscious self—indeed, Grant experiences it as “getting into him.” The opposition between mind and body is again stressed in the statement that both Gennie and Grant are “battered” by physical “feelings neither of them want.” The subsequent sketch of the violent natural setting in which these “feelings” occur explicitly underlines the distinction: the “civilized” mind is “separated” from the unruly, feeling body.

The Body As Marker of Sincerity

A fundamental aspect of Roberts’ representation of the divided self at the beginning of her romance novels is the emphasis on the mind’s inability to control the body in these instances. Roberts’ narrations consistently stress the passive, powerless position of the mental self who undergoes the sexual attraction, the invasive physical impact of the romantic other, but who emphatically lacks power over these bodily reactions and cannot stop them. This uncontrollability not only stresses the schism between body and mind that exists within the lover’s self at this early stage of the romance narrative, but is also an essential aspect of Roberts’ construction of the body as a site of (emotional) truth. In Roberts’ fictional universes the body consistently functions as a marker and display of (emotional) truth. Profound, heart-felt, sincere emotions instantly manifest bodily: faces pale in shock, fingers tremble from sadness, hands jerk in surprise, voices shake from anger and eyes are bruised, battered or smudged from emotional pain. Time and again, Roberts’ narrations stress that the mind—the conscious, thinking self—has no control over these physical manifestations.

Importantly, this emphatic lack of mental control implies an inability to consciously manipulate the body—in Roberts’ fictional worlds, when true love is involved, the body cannot lie. The uncontrolled body thus necessarily and certainly displays true, sincere, authentic emotion—and to say that the body displays these emotions means, in effect, that in Roberts’ romance fiction the body becomes a text that can be read in order to gain insight into one’s true emotional state, even when the novel at hand does not explicitly deploy textual metaphors. This “reading” of the body is undertaken by both the characters within the fictional world and the novels’ readers outside of it. Indeed, in an interesting doubling act, the novels’ characters, like the novels’ readers, become readers and interpreters who turn to the body-text to gain insight into their own or another character’s true emotions.

Roberts’ deployment of the body-text as a marker of sincere emotion is exemplified in a scene from the 1996 single title Western romance Montana Sky. The scene depicts the story’s heroine, Willa Mercy, in a state of profound emotional distress. She has just discovered the murdered and mutilated body of her long-time employee Pickles and faces the loss of her home, ranch and livelihood due to the murder. While throughout the novel Willa is usually characterized as an exceptionally strong and decisive woman, this is a point in the narrative where she reaches emotional rock bottom. In the following excerpt she is confronted with her two half-sisters, with whom she has a strained relationship, and experiences a range of conflicting emotions. Willa’s complex emotions—which include grief over Pickles, horror over the image of the mutilated body, guilt because she had words with the victim mere hours before his death, bone-deep fear of losing her home and livelihood and eventual extreme relief when she realizes the ranch is safe—impact her body, which instantaneously displays them.

Willa came into the kitchen, stopped short when she saw the women at the table. Her face was still pale, her movements still jerky. [ . . . ] She slipped her hands into her pockets as she stepped toward the table. Her fingers still tended to shake. [Her sister confirms the ranch is safe. . . . ] Because wine seemed like a fine idea, Willa crossed to the cupboards and took out a tumbler. Then she just stood there, unable to move, barely able to think. She hadn’t been able to fully consider the loss of the ranch. [ . . . ] But it wasn’t until now, until she knew [it was safe], that it hit her. And it hit her hard. Giving in, she rested her head against the cupboard door and closed her eyes. Pickles. Dear God, would she see him for the rest of her life, what had been done to him, what had been left of him? [ . . . ] But the ranch, for now, was safe. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” She didn’t realize she’d moaned it out loud until Lily laid a tentative hand on her shoulder. (110)

In this scene, Willa’s body clearly functions as a text displaying her emotions as both the characters within the fictional world and the novel’s reader outside of it interpret Willa’s emotional state of mind via the physical signs displayed by her body. Her pale face, jerky movements, shaking fingers, closed eyes and unconscious moaning are conventional physical signs of emotional upheaval. The pronounced contrast between her purposeful, controlled physical actions—“cross[ing] to the cupboards and tak[ing] out a tumbler”—and the purposeless, uncontrolled ones—“just [standing] there, unable to move, [ . . . ] rest[ing] her head [ . . . ] clos[ing] her eyes”—constructs and reinforces the interpretation of the latter as manifestations of and responses to profound emotions.

The character’s lack of conscious control over her body’s display is stressed multiple times in this short scene and ensures the sincerity of these emotions. It is clear that the characters in this fictional world are aware of their bodies’ truth-revealing and communicative potential: Willa attempts to hide her shaking fingers, knowing those bodily manifestations would reveal a depth of emotional turmoil she is uncomfortable displaying in front of her sisters. Lily’s supportive “hand on [Willa’s] shoulder” indicates, reversely, that not only grief but also support and comfort can be communicated solely by the body. The marked absence of language—dialogue—in this scene adds to its emotional impact as it constructs this world as one in which emotional truth can be read directly from and conveyed by the body-text, making emotional deceit and insincerity virtually impossible.

Sex: So Much More Than Just Sex

Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—which is pervasive in her texts and an important conceptual pillar on which her fictional worlds rest—implies that the body uncontrolled by the mind displays emotional truth. This notion puts another perspective on the function of sex in the representation of romantic love. Roberts’ texts emphasize the physical, natural, powerful and non-rational aspects of sex and sexual desire, which are represented as ultimate acts of the body as opposed to the mind. In the experience of sexual sensations “the body rule[s] the moment” (High Noon 222) and the thinking, rational, controlling self is temporarily suspended as the natural impulses of the body take over. This representation is frequently based on the association of sex with powerful natural phenomena and a lack of rationality and control on the part of the mental, conscious self. As Belsey notes, metaphors of powerful natural phenomena and disasters are often used to describe sexual sensations in popular romance novels, and Roberts indeed tends to depict sex in rather unimaginative and very conventional—even clichéd—metaphors. Sexual sensations are like a “flame [ . . . and] fire, in the blood, in the bone” (Valley of Silence 62), “long, liquid waves” (High Noon 312), “turbulence,” “a tidal wave” (Irish Thoroughbred 195; 129), “a rage” (Montana Sky 134), “a fever” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389), “a full-scale explosion” (One Man’s Art 306) and “liquid flames” (Dance of the Gods 96). Via these metaphors Roberts not only emphasizes the powerful, uncontrollable force of the sexual experiences—sex is literally and metaphorically depicted as a force of nature—but of course also inscribes the texts in the conventions of the romance genre.

The rational subject’s lack of control in the physical sexual experience is further emphasized in Roberts’ narration by her representation of sexual desire and sensations as a near-violent force that seems to attack the body. Descriptions such as “desire [ . . . ] pierced through him” (Morrigan’s Cross 43, emphasis mine), “each separate scent slammed into his system, pumping through his blood, roaring through his head,” “dozens of sensations knifed into him, all sharp and deadly” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389; 429, emphasis mine), “the stab of desire [ . . . ] left a nagging ache,” “it rocket through him, fierce and fast,” and is “an assault on the system” (One Man’s Art 304-5, emphasis mine) systematically invoke the semantic field of violence and thereby stress the uncontrollable nature of this desire.[5] These descriptions also serve to represent the subject’s experience of sexual desire as an external phenomenon which does not seem to originate within the (conscious) self. The gap between body and mind seems wider than ever in these passages.

This dissociation between body and mind is reinforced by the recurring and explicit associations of sex with a lack of rationality; physical sexual sensations are repeatedly represented as causing the mind to “turn off” (Valley of Silence 141). Here are two exemplary passages:

He brushed his thumb over her nipple, watched the shock of pleasure flicker over her face. “Turn that busy mind off, Moira.” It was already as if mists clouded it. How could she think when her body was swimming in sensation? [ . . . H]er mind misted over again as his hands, his mouth, slid like flaming velvet over her body. [ . . . ] She was nothing but feelings now, a mass of pleasures beyond any possibility. [ . . . ] His hands simply ruled her until she was a hostage to this never-ending need. Half-mad she struggled with his shirt. (Valley of Silence 141)

But right at the moment, with her back up against the door and his mouth hot on hers, thinking wasn’t part of the equation. [ . . . ] His hands dove into her hair, skimmed over her shoulders, molded down her body with such purpose and skill that any idea [ . . . ] went straight out of the window, and kept on flying. [ . . . ] With her mouth under assault and her blood flashing from comfortably warm to desperately hot, her body ruled the moment. [ . . . ] The sensations careening inside her flew too fast, too high for [ . . . ] any hope of sanity. (High Noon 221-22)

Physical sexual pleasure is explicitly presented as causing a temporary suspension of the self’s rational capacity: Moira’s mind is “clouded” by “mists” and “misted over” due to the hero’s sexually arousing touches; “thinking [isn’t] part of the equation” in these scenes as rational thoughts go “straight out the window and [keep] flying.” Again, the sexual body is presented as the opposite of the rational, thinking mind: “how could she think when her body was swimming in sensations?” During sex the self is then reduced to “nothing but feelings, a mass of pleasures” and the “body rule[s] the moment;” the rational self is temporarily suspended in this act and, the love scenes stress over and over again, overpowered by the natural body that for an instant overtakes and occupies the entire self. This hyperbolic representation of sex—Roberts projects the feelings surrounding the orgasmic moment to all sexual sensations—emphasizes and exaggerates the uncontrollable nature of sex and, by extension, the body.

Whereas Belsey interprets this representation of sexuality as indicative of how body and mind are and remain separated, my reading of Roberts’ use of these topoi recasts them as a pre-condition for the authenticity of the true love that is later realized in the complete unification of body and mind. This interpretation builds on Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—an interpretive strategy that constructs sexuality as undeniable physical proof of the authenticity of an as-yet mentally unacknowledged emotion. This interpretation of sex is further supported by other, explicitly non-sexual manifestations of the body. Indeed, the bodies of Roberts’ lovers/protagonists do not exclusively respond to the other in a sexual way, but also experience and display strong non-sexualized reactions. These are diverse and range from the small and seemingly unremarkable—an “uneven beat of [the] heart” (Irish Thoroughbred 43), hands that naturally “belong” (One Man’s Art 328) together, a “quick hitch in [the] gut” upon seeing the other cry (Montana Sky 65), a throat snapping shut when being “wooed” (Dance of the Gods 90), and the natural “fit” of each other’s bodies (Montana Sky 115)—to more elaborate physical responses.

In the following brief scene from the 1991 category romance Suzanna’s Surrender, for example, hero Holt’s body experiences and displays his strong emotional response to heroine Suzanna at a time in the narrative when he has not yet consciously realized or acknowledged his feelings for her (let alone openly confessed them to her). Holt’s body displays as-yet-unspoken feelings of affection and love, but this display is clearly not sexual:

[Holt] rubbed a thumb over the line between [Suzanna’s] brows in a gentle gesture that surprised them both. Catching himself, he dropped his hand again. (Suzanna’s Surrender 421)

Again the conscious self’s lack of control over this bodily act (“catching himself”) is stressed; the body, disconnected in these acts from the mind, displays and reveals an emotional truth the rational, conscious self has not yet acknowledged. While the overwhelming sexual response then generally dominates the protagonists’ physical reaction to one another, such non-sexual physical manifestations confirm what the emphatic uncontrollability of the sexual acts already indicate, namely the existence of an as-yet linguistically unacknowledged emotion of which these bodily manifestations are both the physical trace and proof.

The Meaning of the Body

Although these physical manifestations and reactions are an essential part of true love, they do not suffice: as Belsey remarks, for popular romance novels the difference between love and lust lies in the complete involvement of the mental self (28-29). In Roberts’ novels as well, true romantic love comes into being when not only the bodily but also the mental self is involved in the phenomenon. This mental involvement consists, as Belsey already indicates, essentially of language: the lover speaks about love, in doing so asserts his/her identity as a subject and involves his/her complete self in the romantic love he/she speaks of. However, whereas Belsey posits that it is in this speaking that the dichotomy between mind and body is reconfirmed and reconstituted—the words have to be spoken “independently” from the body (Belsey 30)—I claim that in Nora Roberts’ romances in this speaking of love the gap between body and mind is definitively bridged.

In a fictional world in which the body functions as a text the physical manifestations of love have double significance: they offer the unquestionable physical proof of love’s truth by making it tangible, anchoring the immaterial to the material, and they signal and display this truth to be read, interpreted and linguistically realized. Still, Roberts’ representations of romantic love consistently make the point that without the active intervention of the conscious, thinking, speaking self this physicality is and remains mute. It is only when the thinking, speaking subject intervenes with the transformative act of interpretation that these otherwise meaningless physical manifestations become significant and meaningful, in the etymological senses of both words. This transformative act, the “making” of meaning and sense, takes place in language; physical reality (the body) is “put into words” and thereby transformed from meaning-less to meaning-full. As long as love is only apparent in the body and remains consciously, rationally and linguistically unacknowledged, it remains without meaning, regardless of how materially real and true the bodily manifestations prove it to be. It is in this transformative process of making the meaningless physical truth meaningful that the gap between body and mind—emphatically staged at the start of the romance—is bridged in Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love. This bridging takes place in three successive stages.

The first stage consists of a remarkable discomfort, unease and even fear the protagonists experience over (some of) their physical reactions. Montana Sky hero Ben, for example, is “unnerved” (115) by the way Willa fits in his arms, Irish Thoroughbred’s Adelia finds her physical “awareness” of Travis “disturbing” (47), Blair, in Dance of the Gods, feels “wary” (48) about kissing Larkin, Holt and Suzanna both “resent and fear” (Suzanna’s Surrender 383) the intensity of their physical attraction, and Morrigan’s Cross’ Hoyt “fears” (82) the intensity of his desire for Glenna. This resentment and fear is all the more remarkable because it is often connected to physical and sexual sensations that are essentially pleasurable (exceptionally so even). The lovers’ marked unease then indicates a consciously unarticulated awareness on their part that the intensity of their bodily response is a sign of an otherwise as-yet-unacknowledged emotional truth: they are falling in love. The concept of love—that is, the signifier ‘love’—remains strictly unarticulated by the protagonists in this stage of the story, however.

The second phase in the bridging of the gap between mind and body by making meaningless physical truth meaning-full via interpretation and linguistic actualisation consists of a rudimentary linguistic acknowledgement of the physically enacted emotional truth. This elementary linguistic acknowledgement takes place in the use of the explicitly vague and generic term “something” (sometimes “it”) to refer to the phenomenon that in a later stage will be acknowledged as true love. Roberts uses this word in this way multiple times in all the novels in this study; a few examples:

[S]he had tapped into something inside him he hadn’t known was there—and was still more than a little uncomfortable with. Finding it, feeling it left him as vulnerable as she. (Suzanna’s Surrender 470)

 

I feel for you. You stir something in me. Yes, it’s difficult, and it’s distracting. But it tells me I’m here. (Morrigan’s Cross 127)

 

There was longing in him for her, which he thought as natural as breath. But there was something tangled with it, something sharp that he didn’t recognize. (Dance of the Gods 100)

 

Still, there was something inside her, something she couldn’t quite see clearly, or study, or understand. Whatever it was made her uneasy, even nervy around him. (Dance of the Gods 212)

“Something” is an interesting choice of words: on the one hand it signifies a rudimentary linguistic actualisation of the physically manifesting truth, which is at this stage in the story still unnamed and thus unsignified; “something” changes this and brings the uninterpreted, mute physicality into the meaning-full, human world of language. On the other hand, however, “something” is a word that essentially means nothing. It is so vague and generic that in the act of naming it signifies not-naming; even as it puts into words—signifies, linguistically actualises—a physical reality, it refuses to assign it actual, concrete meaning. Still, this use of “something” signals the beginning of the bridging of the gap between mind and body as it starts the mental naming process of a bodily experienced truth. It does not, however, fully bridge the gap; the lack of concrete meaning makes the transformative act of interpretation and signification incomplete.

The gap between body and mind is fully bridged in the third phase: the actual use of the word “love” in naming the physical and emotional phenomenon the protagonists are experiencing. This first conscious naming takes place in the protagonist’s initial, introspective realization or acknowledgement that he/she is in “love” with the other. It is one of the most important moments in the romance novel and its representation as an isolated, crystal clear moment poised in time and place reinforces its perceived significance.

Why did he always send her into a flutter? she wondered. Why did her pulses begin to race [ . . . ] whenever she looked up and met those marvelous, blue eyes? [ . . . ] She’d lost. She’d lost the battle, and though she fought against it, she was in love with Travis Grant. (Irish Thoroughbred 78)

 

Love. He’d managed to avoid it for so many years, then he had thoughtlessly opened the door. It had barged in on him, Grant reflected, uninvited, unwelcome. Now he was vulnerable, dependent—all the things he had promised himself he’d never be again. (One Man’s Art 408)

 

He glanced toward her and felt the punch low in his gut. [ . . .] When his palms grew damp on the wheel, he looked away. Not falling in love, he realized. He’d stopped falling and had hit the ground with a fatal smack. (Suzanna’s Surrender 442)

 

Love. His heart ached at the word so that he pressed his hand to it. This was love then. The gnawing, the burning. The light and the dark. Not just warm flesh and murmurs in the candlelight, but pain and awareness in the light of day. In the depths of the night. To feel so much for one person, it eclipsed all else. And it was terrifying. (Morrigan’s Cross 247)[6]

In these scenes, the most crucial step in the bridging of the gap between mind and body is taken: the physical materiality of the body—already rudimentarily signified by “something” but still lacking true meaning and thereby a place in the ordered, comprehensible, signified human world—is transformed into a signified linguistic entity and irrevocably takes on meaning. The gap between mind and body is then completely bridged in these scenes since these words are not spoken independently from the body, as Belsey would have it, but are to the contrary both a linguistic, mental actualisation of the bodily experience which cause further bodily repercussions. Indeed, the use of the word love impacts the body. Body and mind are intimately connected; the self is unified.

From Love to True Love Via “I Love You”

Although in the initial linguistic actualisation of love the gap between the lover’s body and mind is bridged, the love that is realized here does not yet qualify as the utopian true love around which popular romance novels conventionally revolve. The discourse that is used in the initial realization scenes tends to signal that something is still amiss. In the examples cited above, for instance, love is considered a “lost battle”, it “aches [ . . . ] gnaws [ . . . ] burns,” brings “pain” and uncomfortable “awareness;” and is explicitly “uninvited, unwelcome,” “terrifying,” and “fatal.” The semantic fields of battle and violence which are systematically invoked in thinking about love in this stage of Roberts’ romance narratives are discursive traces of an underlying problem: the lover has not yet freely, rationally, actively chosen this love. Instead, this love is a physically proven truth, a fait accompli, a material fact the existence of which the lover can no longer ignore or deny, but to which he is at this point essentially subjected. In other words, the lover lacks agency in love.

That the lover’s agency and volition, his free and active choice to accept and embrace love, is crucial to Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love is something that is established repeatedly in the narratives in this study. Roberts’ lovers tend to make a clear distinction, for example, between the physical manifestation of sexual desire and other bodily signals of love on the one hand and the choice to accept and want those desires and manifestation—to want, in other words, romantic love—on the other. Morrigan’s Cross’ heroine Glenna Ward pointedly formulates the central dilemma Roberts’ lovers/protagonists face in this regard when after her first, fiercely passionate kiss with reluctant hero Hoyt, she muses: “He wanted her, there was no question of that. But he didn’t choose to want her. Glenna preferred to be chosen” (Morrigan’s Cross, 83). The signifier “want,” here a reference to sexual desire, and “choice,” here a reference to the innately human capacity of free will, explicitly differentiate between the desires of the body and the mind in play in this scene and the entire romance. The heroine’s explicit assertion that she “prefer[s] to be chosen” indicates the importance of the lover’s conscious volition in the matter of true love. In deliberately choosing to accept and actively embrace love—a love that has been constructed as both physically and emotionally overwhelming—the lover takes on agency in the experience and finally completes the realization of true love.

Lovers in Roberts’ popular romance novels take on the necessary agency in the declaration of love, which is constituted by uttering the deceptively simple words “I love you.” The communicative nature of the declaration of love distinguishes it from the earlier, interior linguistic realization of love. In uttering the words “I love you,” the lover openly declares his love to the other and transforms the status of his love from private to public. As love becomes a shared knowledge between the lover and the beloved, it also becomes part of the world outside the self and, consequently, requires a place within that exterior world. The successful declaration of love signals the lover’s free will to assign love that place in the world, to freely and completely accept the potentially overwhelming experience and give it a meaningful place in his reality, as we can see in this example of a successful declaration scene:

I love you. [ . . . Y]ou’re my breath, and my pulse, my heart, my voice. [ . . . ] I’ll love you even when all of them stop. I’ll love you, and only you, until all the worlds are ended. So you’ll marry me, Blair. And I’ll go where you go, and fight beside you. We’ll live together, and love together, and make a family. (Dance of the Gods 313)

The lover first re-establishes the truth of the love-phrase by explicitly referencing the body and then places his declared love in the meaningful, recognizable socio-economic and cultural order of the world by tying it to the culturally conventional institutions of marriage and family. In this way the lover takes on agency in the experience of love as he performs the choice to accept and embrace the potentially overpowering natural phenomenon and places it in the meaningful world of culture. The subject’s cultural placing of love in the conventional entities of marriage, home and family checks love’s natural, potentially uncontrollable power and transforms it into a steady and strong basis for the protagonists’ lives together.

Although the successful declaration of love that completes the realization of true love is always constituted, in Roberts’ popular romances, by the phrase “I love you,” the words alone are not enough. “I love you” is only successful as a declaration of love when it performs the lover’s volition to place love in the cultural order and to make romantic love into the foundation of the culturally conventional entities of marriage (a lifetime spent together), home and family.[7] That simply speaking the words “I love you” does not constitute the successful declaration of love becomes clear when we look more closely at one of the few unsuccessful declarations the corpus of this study includes. In One Man’s Art, for example, the protagonists declare their love to one another for the first time about halfway through the novel, but these declarations are ultimately unsuccessful (the relationship still falls apart afterwards). A closer reading of the scene reveals the problem:

[Hero Grant:] “I feel like someone’s just given me a solid right straight to the gut. [ . . . ] So now I’m in love with you, and I can tell you, I’m not crazy about the idea.” [ . . . ]

[Heroine Gennie]: “If you’re in love with me, that’s your problem. I have one of my own because I’m in love with you.” [ . . . ]

[Grant] “We both would have been better off if you’d waited out that storm in a ditch instead of coming here. [ . . . ] I’m in love with you, and damn it, I don’t like it. [ . . . ] I love you [ . . . ] I don’t like it, I may never get used to it, but I love you. [ . . . ] You make my head swim.” (405-7)

Although both hero and heroine speak the conventional words of love—words which are, moreover, explicitly connected to the body, so the material truth of this love is not in doubt—the characters do not perform the free choice to accept that love. Grant’s repeated assertion that he “does not like” being in love with Gennie signals his lack of agency in the experience. The love he speaks of is the one over which he has no control and in which he makes no choice; it is the powerful, dangerous, potentially overwhelming kind of love which has not yet been brought into the cultural system—love without a place in the conventional cultural order. This unplaced love, though physically real and linguistically declared, is a “problem” to which neither character, in this stage of the story, has the solution. This problem is solved in the final scene of the novel when the protagonists’ declarations of love lead to a marriage proposal and, implicitly, the perspective on a shared home and family (492-98).

As a successful declaration of love, the phrase “I love you” then works in a very particular way in Roberts’ romance novels. Declared under the appropriate circumstances and conveying a particular set of meanings, the declaration realises—actualises, makes real—true love and thereby literally changes reality. Indeed, it is precisely in saying the words that true love is realised: the declaration “I love you” performs true love. “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in all of Roberts’ romance novels, but this functioning is especially clearly illustrated in the paranormal romance Morrigan’s Cross, in which the story’s paranormal setting is used to explicitly depict the reality-changing impact of the declaration of love.

“I love you.” She saw his eyes change. “Those are the strongest words in any magic. I love you. With that incantation, I already belong to you.”

“Once I speak it, it’s alive. Nothing can ever kill it. [ . . . ] I love you.” A single beam of light shot out of the sky, washed over them, centred them in a circle of white. (249-50)

“I love you” is considered an “incantation,” “strong [ . . . ] magic[al]” words which perform the belonging to each other that romantic love implies. This scene emphasizes the power the spoken love-word has in Roberts’ romances: once love is spoken, it is “alive. Nothing can ever kill it.” The words, moreover, not only have an immediate effect on the body (“his eyes change”), but also literally change reality (“A single beam [ . . . ] white”).

This performative speech act, which can only be realized by a lover whose body and mind are harmoniously unified within the self, completes the lover’s journey and often heralds the beginning of the romance novel’s (in)famous happily-ever-after ending. The unification between body and mind—between the order of the material and of the immaterial—that is ultimately achieved in the experience of true love in Roberts’ romance novels turns these happily-ever-afters into epistemologically very appealing fictional universes. In these implied fictional worlds the radical insecurities that are part and parcel of the (post)modern condition are overcome and replaced by epistemological certitudes. These are worlds in which the self is unified, the body displays truth and the truth can be spoken. In these worlds true love not only exists, but becomes the epistemological, emotional, cultural, and economic foundation on which all else rests. These are, in short, the massively appealing fictional worlds that Belsey claims the popular romance novel promises but fails to deliver.

Conclusion

If Nora Roberts succeeds where, at least according to Belsey, other romance authors fail, is this success then the secret to Roberts’ unprecedented popularity? According to the terms set by Belsey’s older study, this would be the logical conclusion indeed. If Belsey is right in claiming that the massive appeal of popular romance fiction lies in its promise to unite mind and body and if Nora Roberts is the only author to actually consistently achieve this fictional unification, the logical outcome would be that it is Roberts’ mastery of this particular construction of romantic love that underlies her exceptional popular success.[8] This suggestion is certainly intriguing and deserves further scrutiny in future work. But for the moment methodological rigor—of a kind that is characteristic of the further maturation of the field of Popular Romance Studies discussed in the introduction to this paper—urges caution in an attempt to avoid hasty conclusions.

A number of questions in fact remain open. While it is, for example, clear that this construction of romantic love recurs in Roberts’ romance novels, it remains unclear whether it is specific to Roberts’ work. Comparative analyses of other authorial romance oeuvres are necessary to determine the wider occurrence of this pattern. If the construction turns out to be specific to Roberts, further sociological or anthropological study of the reception of these novels is necessary to substantiate Belsey’s theory-based claim that it is precisely this particular representation of romantic love that determines the massive appeal of Roberts’ oeuvre. If the construction is not specific to Roberts’ oeuvre, it is possible that this study points towards an important wider historical shift in the romance genre. It is imaginable, for example, that the representation of the body and the mind as it was recorded by Belsey is a textual reflection of a particular cultural moment of anxiety about female sexuality. In the more than two decades that have passed since the publication of the novels used in Belsey’s study, this cultural anxiety surrounding female sexuality has lessened. Roberts’ representation of romantic love might in fact be a textual trace of this wider socio-cultural evolution. Further study is necessary to substantiate such speculations.

As the scholarly study of popular romance fiction enters its fifth decade, transformations in the practice of this scholarship are in full swing. While these transformations necessarily imply a certain degree of distancing or separation between older and younger generations of romance scholars, the discussions in this paper illustrate the continued relevance of older studies to the present generation of popular romance scholars. Although we might be inclined to reject many of these older studies because of their (over)generalizing approach to the genre (see e.g. Selinger (2007)), this paper has shown how such general claims continue to be valuable as they provoke new and interesting analyses of the genre. The future of the study of popular romance fiction lies neither in the outright rejection of older claims nor in the uncritical acceptance thereof, but in our ability to use the powerful tools we find in earlier work to further our growing understanding of this complex and evolving genre.

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—. “Complicating Romances and Their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 145-54. Print.

—. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?”  Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Roberts, Nora. Dance of the Gods. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

—. High Noon. London: Piatkus, 2007. Print.

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—. Montana Sky. 1996. New York: Jove Books, 1997. Print.

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—. One Man’s Art. 1985. Nora Roberts. The MacGregors Alan-Grant. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books, 1999. 249-498. Print.

—. Suzanna’s Surrender. 1991. Nora Roberts. The Calhoun Women. New York: Silhouette Books, 1996. 361-506. Print.

—. Tonight and Always. 1983. Nora Roberts. From the Heart. New York: Jove Books, 1996. 1 – 166. Print.

—. Valley of Silence. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

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Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Print.

Valeo, Christina. “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 229-240. Print.


[1] This paper could not have been realized without the help and support I received from Professor Eric Selinger; I thank him most cordially for his feedback. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers who reviewed earlier versions of this piece and provided many valuable suggestions.

[2] For a more extensive discussion of the development of the study of popular romance fiction and the relation between older and more recent studies of the genre see Regis (2011) and Goris (2011).

[3] That vastly less scholarly attention is paid to Roberts than to other contemporary bestselling author of genre fiction is indicated, for example, by data in the academic databank JSTOR which stores bibliographical information about scholarly articles. Several sample searches of JSTOR in September 2010 and September 2012 resulted in 599/800 hits for the search term “Rowling” (“Harry Potter” gave 607/1064), 1158/1449 for “Stephen King”, 213/264 for “John Grisham”, but barely 11/17 for “Nora Roberts” (three of these articles are about a different Nora (Ruth) Roberts and none of them are actual studies of the romance author).

[4] The most important academic discussions of Roberts’ oeuvre are by Pamela Regis (“Complicating Romances” and Natural History 183-204), John Lennard (2007), Séverine Olivier (2008) and Chris Valeo (2012). A first academic monograph on Roberts is currently being prepared by the author of the present paper and is expected to be published by McFarland in 2014.

[5] Given the popular romance genre’s infamous history with rape, an important distinction has to be pointed out here: while Roberts unabashedly emphasizes the violent force of the desire within the self, this violence does not translate into any kind of forced sexual interaction. Choice and free will are of paramount importance in Roberts’ romance fiction and the texts never leave any doubt that the protagonists fully consent to all sexual interaction they have. There is, arguably, one exception in Roberts’ entire oeuvre: in Tonight and Always (1983) the hero comes very close to raping the heroine. Although she eventually “stop[s] struggling … soften[s] and surrender[s]” (142) to him, it can be debated if this is consensual sex or so-called “forced seduction.”

[6] For similar scenes in these and other novels in this study, see: One Man’s Art 348, Susanna’s Surrender 431, Montana Sky 426, Dance of the Gods 228 and High Noon 282.

[7] The idea that “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in popular romance novels has been developed and discussed much more extensively by Lisa Fletcher in her ground-breaking study Historical Romance Fiction; see in particular pp. 25-48.

[8] The keen reader notes a logical inconsistency here because Belsey in fact suggests that the disappointment readers supposedly feel over the failed unification of mind and body drives the desire to read more romance. From this perspective, Roberts’ exceptional success is inexplicable according to the terms set out by Belsey.

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Review: Reading Nora Roberts, by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

In the landmark 1997 Paradoxa special issue on popular romance, Pamela Regis and Kay Mussell both noted that the study of individual romance authors was needed for the further development and consolidation of Popular Romance Studies as a critical field. (Mussell 10, Regis 146) Such single-author studies would effectively counter the stereotype that popular romance fiction is “formulaic” by demonstrating that popular romance, like any other kind of literature, is written by a multitude of individual, markedly different authors, each of whom deserves to be considered as such. Thirteen years later, alas, scholarly work on individual romance authors remains quite rare. Even the oeuvre of an incredibly popular romance author like Nora Roberts—who, with 164 New York Times bestsellers to her name and a staggering 400 million copies of her books in print (“Nora Roberts. Did You Know?”), is one of the most read authors worldwide—is discussed in only a handful of scholarly publications. Academic articles which focus exclusively on Roberts’ work are even rarer, and no book-length monograph currently exists, either on Roberts or any other contemporary popular romance author. Given this gap in romance scholarship, I was pleasantly surprised when I learned about the publication of Mary Ellen Snodgrass’ Reading Nora Roberts (2010).

Reading Nora Roberts is, however, not the scholarly work the field of Popular Romance Studies needs. In fact, despite Snodgrass’ professorship (proudly announced in the “About the Author” section), Reading Nora Roberts is not an academic study at all. Instead, it is a somewhat hastily put together book directed at what seem to be book club readers and, perhaps, interested high school students or entering undergraduates. (That Snodgrass is not addressing peer scholars but casual readers appears in, for example, the “discussion questions” at the end of each chapter, her repeated uncritical use of the term “feminism” without any regard for the complex theoretical debates the concept entails, and the summaries of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights she deems it necessary to provide.)

As a book for a wide but avidly interested audience, Reading Nora Roberts aims both to introduce the author and to facilitate discussion of her vast oeuvre. While her discussion of individual novels demonstrates Snodgrass’s skills as a literary scholar—she often displays real insight into Roberts’ narratives—the book is ultimately undermined by the critic’s apparently haphazard approach to Roberts’ oeuvre and the lack of clear direction in her argumentation.

One of the more puzzling aspects to negotiate as a reader of this book is the unexplained differences in the extent of Snodgrass’s discussion of Roberts’ works. As the critic surveys the course of Roberts’s career, in-depth analyses of some novels alternate with all-too-brief and underdeveloped discussions of others, creating a strange imbalance. For example, the chapter on Roberts’ work in the 1990s offers a detailed look at Montana Sky, but the equally long subsequent chapter on the 2000s consists of far more superficial discussions of five different novels. Snodgrass does not account for her differing approach. The in-depth focus on single novels is to be lauded both as a principle and in Snodgrass’ execution; indeed, Reading Nora Roberts reaches its most interesting potential when Snodgrass momentarily lets loose her literary analysis skills, as for example when she recasts Serena MacGregor’s retaliatory breaking of her father’s cigars as a “subtextual Freudian gesture of female violence to phallic symbols” (29), or when she discerns Sacred Sins’ “basic antithesis” as the “human need and male dread of sentimentality” (39). Unfortunately, Snodgrass does not place these novels within Roberts’ oeuvre in any coherent way, and this failure to give a satisfactory account of that oeuvre prevents her from creating the simultaneous sense of overview and depth that she seems to pursue. Although the critic interestingly identifies the presence of numerous socio-cultural themes in some of Roberts’ novels, she tends to oversimplify matters by all-too-brief readings, which fail to develop those promising interpretations. Instead, her discussions are often bogged down by lengthy plot summaries, which might please readers completely unfamiliar with Roberts’ works but are redundant for the experienced Roberts reader and the interested romance scholar.

Even taking the book on its own terms, as a publication for the general public, the book is ultimately disappointing. Although at times Snodgrass’ interpretations display promising potential, overall she fails to offer the comprehensive overview of Roberts’ oeuvre she sets out to provide. The presence of two virtually pointless chapters (one on Roberts on the internet and one on the author’s media presence) and the book’s inadequate length (a meagre 155 pages simply does not suffice to adequately discuss Roberts’ oeuvre of nearly 200 novels) give it the impression of being a hastily and somewhat casually thrown-together book. Worst of all are the steady stream of small but grating factual mistakes, including inaccurate character names (8, 100), repeated references to a trio instead of a quartet of friends in the Wedding Quartet series (85, 86), a description of A Man for Amanda (instead of Courting Catherine) as the first book in the Calhoun series (18) and the professional downgrading of Eve Dallas to “detective” (35). Such sloppiness on the part of both the author and her editors shows a curious lack of respect for Roberts, her readers, and the project of the book itself.

A brief online search indicates that Mary Ellen Snodgrass is not primarily a romance scholar, but has published dozens of guides and textbooks on a dizzying myriad of topics ranging from Greek Classics to nursing to relations between the US and Japan. Both Nora Roberts and Popular Romance Studies deserve better.

Works Cited

“Nora Roberts. Did You Know?” Nora Roberts.com. Web. Nov. 18, 2009.  http://www.noraroberts.com/aboutnora/funfacts.html

Mussell, Kay. “Where’s Love Gone? Transformations in Romance Fiction and Scholarship.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 3-14. Print.

Regis, Pamela. “Complicating Romances and their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 145-54. Print.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Reading Nora Roberts. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2010. Print.

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